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How-to Tip: The World’s Best Barrel Raft

By Howard Charles Best, December 9, 2006

(LLBest.com, )

It was the summer of ’61 or ’62 that I designed and built the world’s best barrel raft. I built it when I was living with my parents on the shore of Portage Lake between Houghton and Chassell, Michigan on US Highway 41. I haven’t seen a better barrel raft before or since. It was used by me and my friends almost every day, all summer long, for several years.

Here’s what we used it for:

1. A swimming platform.

2. A diving platform.

3. A “skin diving” (fins, mask, and snorkel) platform.

4. A SCUBA diving platform.

5. A sun bathing deck.

6. A weight training platform.

7. A launching platform for water skiing. (Even though our boat only had a 35 horsepower Johnson™ outboard motor with a “power prop,” we could very easily have two skiers take off simultaneously from the raft by having lots of slack in the ropes, so that the boat could come up to almost full speed before the ends of the ropes were reached. We could therefore water ski without hardly getting wet, which was very nice when the water was cold! Another thing that we used to do was to ski on skis which were only about 1½ feet long! The procedure was, in addition to having as much slack in the rope as possible, to run across the surface of the raft, skis and all, after the slack was taken up, in order to maximize the speed of the skier when entering the water!)

8. A landing platform for water skiing. (The raft allowed us to land without hardly getting wet by letting go of the rope at exactly the right time, steering to a stop right next to the edge of the raft, and then gently sitting down on the raft’s edge, simultaneously lifting the ski(es) up and out of the water! This may sound difficult and dangerous, but for us it was easy, and I don’t remember anyone ever getting hurt!)

9. A platform for playing “keep the kingdom.” (This is where the fact that the raft was carpeted and the fact that it didn’t have any protrusions, such as a ladder, really came in handy. The fact that it was in deep water, so that there were never any little kids around, was also very helpful!)

10. A boat dock, in which case the carpeting helped to prevent the boat from getting scratched.

11. It would also have made a good platform for fishing, but that’s one thing that we never used it for.

I based the raft’s design upon one that a classmate’s father had built, but the one that I built was better. Like the one that he built, mine was 12x12 feet with 10 inch wide sides all around, but whereas he used eight 55 gallon oil drums, I used nine 30 gallon farm chemical drums. The reason that I used farm chemical drums was that I got them for free from my father because he was a farm chemical dealer.

Using 30 gallon drums turned out to be a real boon. It caused the raft to sit much lower in the water, thus making it unnecessary to include a ladder. My classmate’s raft had a ladder, but since young people tend to “rough house,” a ladder makes a barrel raft much more dangerous. Even though the water was over our heads, we could very easily boost our bodies onto the raft by pushing down on the raft near a corner, thus actually pushing it slightly under water, while simultaneously boosting our bodies up and twisting them around so as to land on our buttocks on the edge of the raft.

Carpeting is another feature that my classmate’s raft lacked. The fact that the raft had carpeting completely covering the sides and the edges made the boarding procedure even more safe and easy. Of course, it would have been better to use outdoor carpeting, but I used indoor scraps because I got them for free, which was great at first, but eventually they began to rot.

One thing that I did right, however, was to put the raft in eight feet of water. This made it safe for diving, and it eliminated the annoyance of small children getting in the way.

Another thing that I did right was to attach the anchor chain right in the middle of the underside of the raft, and to make the chain short enough so that there was no chance of hitting it while diving. This meant that the anchor had to be very heavy. I used a 30 gallon barrel, completely filled with concrete.

Sometimes I would see a couple of young neighborhood “bathing beauties” row out to the raft to use it as a sun bathing platform. Sometimes I didn’t even know who one or both of them were, but it gave me great satisfaction to know that the fruits of my labors were being appreciated and enjoyed by others.

Additional Tips

1. Make sure that 100% of the wood is pressure treated outdoor type.

2. Make the frame out of 2x6s, not 2x4s.

3. If you use farm chemical barrels, make sure that they are empty, and clean the insides as well as possible.

4. In order to prevent the barrels from rusting on the inside, put ½ quart of used motor oil inside each of them.

5. Both bungs in each barrel should be removed, threads cleaned and coated with pipe thread compound, and tightened very tightly.

6. Thoroughly clean the outside of each barrel, and paint them with rust resistant enamel such as Rust-Oleum™.

7. Each barrel should be snug inside of a four sided chamber formed using the 2x6s.

8. Each barrel chamber should be exactly the right size so that when the barrel is secured using two galvanized steel straps connected to galvanized turnbuckles, it barely touches the deck above, but does not push up on it.

9. The deck should be made out of 1" flooring, not 2".

10. Allow enough space between the decking boards for expansion, assuming that the boards are going to be soaking wet quite often.

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